Written by Lisa Guy I Photography by Nadia Harrison @photocollective.co

Milk is a complicated subject. Not only is there full-fat, skinny, skim, but also now soy, almond, oat, and the list goes on. What are we supposed to give our children? Lisa Guy looks at the nutrients of the different varieties so that a more informed decision can be made.

With so many different types of milk on the market these days, going to the supermarket to buy milk for your family is not the simple task it once was.
There are so many varieties of cow’s milk alone, including whole, skim, low-fat, A2, organic and lactose-free, and then non-dairy varieties such as almond, soy, rice, oat and now even quinoa thrown in to make the whole milk thing very confusing.
On the plus side, there is now plenty of choice for parents with children on special-need diets or who have allergies or lactose intolerances. The tricky bit is making sure that from those available or out of those that may be consumed, you choose the right type of milk for your child that will provide them with the important nutrients they need for good health and optimal growth and development.
Choosing which milk to first give your baby is an important decision. Toddlers aged 1-2 years have unique nutritional requirements that differ from older kids and adults. Toddlers have higher fat requirements and need adequate protein and calories for optimal growth and specific vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin A and D.
Different kinds of milk vary in nutrient profiles, so it is important to compare nutrient levels before you buy. It is also recommended to seek advice from a professional nutritionist or naturopath before making major changes to your child’s diet, such as removing dairy. Here is a profile of some of the more common kinds of milk available from health food stores and supermarkets.

Cow’s milk is one of the major sources of calcium in most children’s diets. Cow’s milk provides more calcium than other milk, which is essential for the growth of strong, healthy bones and teeth, and is a rich source of protein, providing 8g per cup. Calcium is also important for healthy nerve and immune function. Cow’s milk is fortified with vitamin D, which is needed to enhance calcium absorption and bone development. Cow’s milk is also a very good source of riboflavin, which helps produce energy, B12 for normal nerve function, and vitamin A to make sure your child has a strong immune system and healthy eyesight.
If choosing cow’s milk, you should only give whole or full-fat milk, with 4% saturated fat, to children under the age of 2. Babies need higher fat, energy-dense foods to fuel their rapidly growing bodies. Children over 2, however, can be given reduced or low-fat milk, which has 1-2% saturated fat. Skim milk, with only 0.1% fat, is not recommended for children under the age of 5.

‘There are so many varieties of cow’s milk … and then non-dairy varieties … and now even Quinoa is thrown in to make the whole milk thing very confusing.’

When is the best time to introduce cow’s milk?
If there is no family history of cow’s milk allergies or lactose intolerance, you can start to use a little full-fat cow’s milk in your infant’s meals, such as porridge or sauces, around 9-10 months of age. After their first birthday, you can start offering them plain milk drinks and healthy milk fruit smoothies. Don’t ‘fill’ your kids with milk, though, as they may not eat other important foods, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and associated health problems, like anemia. Under the age of 1, breast milk or formula should be your baby’s only drink, along with some water from 6 months on. Waiting until then will help reduce the risk of allergies and prevent your child from both over-indulging cow’s milk and refusing breast milk.

There are two main types of proteins found in milk, casein (which makes up a majority of proteins in milk) and whey. Beta-casein is one of the main types of casein proteins that come in two forms, A2 and A1. A2 beta-casein was the original type of milk protein found in all dairy herds thousands of years ago before a mutation of European breeds lead to the appearance of A1 beta-casein in these herds. Guernsey and Jersey cows generally contain the highest percentage of A2 beta-casein compared to most dairies that use mainly Holstein cows, which produce most of our A1beta-casein in Australia.
A2 milk basically has the same nutritional content as conventional cow’s milk and similar lactose levels. The difference is how A2 beta-casein is digested; it doesn’t produce the potent opioid BCM-7, which can cause digestive problems and undesirable effects on neurological and immune cells.1 Studies suggest that β-CM7 may also play a role in behavioural disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.2

Lactose-free milk has all of the same nutritional benefits as conventional cow’s milk. The only difference is that the enzyme lactase has been added. Lactase breaks down the milk sugar lactose, which causes digestive problems in people with lactose intolerance. This is a good milk alternative for toddlers and children with lactose intolerance, but not for children who have a cow’s milk allergy.

You should always choose organic milk where you can as it is produced without growth hormones, antibiotics, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

Goat’s milk can make a great first milk alternative for young toddlers, especially for those who have digestive complaints such as colic and reflux or who are intolerant to cow’s milk. Goat’s milk’s vitamin and mineral content is very close to that of cow’s milk. Goat’s milk actually contains more calcium, and vitamin A, than cow’s milk and is a little lower in lactose, which may benefit some children who are lactose intolerant. Goat’s milk doesn’t provide the same level of vitamin B12 or folic acid that cow’s milk does, however, so if you are giving your child goat’s milk, you should also boost their diet with foods rich in these nutrients, such as fish, lamb, eggs, cheese, and dark green leafy vegetables and legumes. Goat’s milk contains similar amounts of protein to cow’s milk and contains A2 beta-casein. The proteins in goat’s milk, and smaller fat globules, tend to be easier to digest and less allergic for infants.

Soy milk is another milk alternative that may be given to toddlers and children who have a cow’s milk allergy or lactose intolerance or who are following a vegan diet. Be aware though, that soy is also a common allergen in children who are allergic to cow’s milk. Soy milk contains similar protein levels to whole milk and adequate calories for your growing toddler. Choose ‘regular’ soy, which contains the highest amount of saturated fat, at 4g per cup, over the low-fat variety that are not recommended for children under 2. Fat is not only a good energy source for growing toddlers but is also needed for brain development. Soy milk does not naturally contain adequate amounts of calcium for toddlers, so make sure you buy one that is fortified with calcium. Soy milk contains phytates that can reduce the absorption of calcium, so it is a good idea to also increase calcium-rich foods such as broccoli, tahini, kale, yoghurt and cheese in your child’s diet. Make sure you also buy soy milk that is fortified with vitamin A and D. Soy milk is also lacking in vitamin B12, which is found only in animal foods.
Soybeans and soy milk contain chemicals called isoflavones, which are phytoestrogens that exert a weak oestrogenic effect on the body. There are concerns that these isoflavones could potentially have an effect on children’s growth and development if eaten to excess. Organic soy milk is safe for children to consume in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet. If you are giving your child milk alternatives, it is a good idea to give them a variety of milk, for example, organic regular soy milk on cereal, almond milk in smoothies, and quinoa or calcium and protein enriched rice milk in warm drinks.
Only buy organic soy milk that is free from genetically modified soybeans and chemical pesticides. Also, watch out for soy milk brands that contain high levels of added sugars. You can buy sugar-free varieties.

Almond milk is a great alternative for children who are lactose intolerant or allergic to casein or soy. Avoid almond milk if you have nut allergies in the family. Almond milk is a good source of calcium, having only slightly lower levels compared to cow’s milk, and contains vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and vitamin D and A. Where almond milk falls short is in protein, with only 1g per cup of protein compared to 8g per cup found in cow’s milk. Almond milk is also low in fat, which is important for toddlers under 2. Almond milk also lacks the B vitamins found in cow’s milk. Some brands have a lot of added sugars, so read labels carefully for sugar, agave, rice or cane syrup. Sugar-free almond milk are readily available. Almond milk can be more expensive than other types of milk. However, you can make it easily at home.

Rice milk can be given to children who have allergies to both cows and soy milk. Rice milk naturally contains very little protein, fat, and calories and is not considered a good nutritional replacement for cow’s milk for young toddlers. You can, however, buy protein-enriched rice milk with added chickpeas and varieties fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin D, which have levels similar to that of cow’s milk. Rice milk also lacks vitamin A and B vitamins. Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic of all the milk substitutes and can make a good alternative to whole milk if you choose a fortified variety that contains all the important nutrients your growing child needs. Rice milk has a naturally sweet taste as it is higher in natural sugars than other milk.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) milk is made from quinoa seeds and has the consistency of rice milk with a nutty taste. Quinoa is considered a superfood as it is rich in phytonutrients and highly nutritious. It is a good source of high-quality protein, providing 4g of protein per cup, compared to whole milk, which has 8g per cup. Quinoa milk contains 2g of saturated fats, which is comparable to that of low-fat cow’s milk, but it also has 5g of beneficial unsaturated fats, including heart-healthy oleic acid. Quinoa milk is suitable for anyone with lactose intolerance, milk allergies, or gluten intolerance. However, it lacks calcium, vitamin A and D, which are all important nutrients your kids need for growth and development. If you are giving your children quinoa milk, you must boost their diets with foods rich in these essential nutrients. Good sources of vitamin A and D include fish, meat, eggs, and cod liver oil. Some brands of quinoa have added sugars, so look out for agave syrup or corn maltodextrin on the ingredient panel.

Oat milk is another milk alternative for children who are allergic to cow’s milk, have lactose intolerance, or are vegetarian. Oat milk may not be suitable for children with gluten intolerance, though. Oat milk contains around half the protein content of cow’s milk, with 4 g of protein per cup, so you would need to make sure that your child was getting adequate amounts of protein through other foods in their diets, such as fish, nuts, seeds, red meat, eggs, chicken, legumes, yoghurt, and tofu. Oat milk has more protein than almond or rice milk, which has only 1g per cup. Oat milk is also naturally low in calcium, so choose an oat milk that is calcium-fortified to a similar level to cow’s milk. It is also relatively low in fat, which young toddlers need. Oat milk is higher in carbohydrates than most other milk, similar to rice milk, and is higher in fibre.

Coconut milk is much higher in saturated fats than any other milk, containing a whooping 51g per cup, compared to cow’s milk with 5g. Coconut milk is lacking in protein and calcium, so it doesn’t make a good substitute for cow’s milk. Coconut milk is ideal for making curries, healthy desserts, and other dishes for your family.
It is always recommended to seek advice from a professional nutritionist or naturopath before making any major changes, such as excluding dairy from your children’s diet.

1. Schulte-Frohlinde E, Schmid R, Brantl V, Schusdziarra V, (1994). Effect of bovine beta-casomorphin-4-amide on gastrointestinal transit and pancreatic endocrine function in man In Brantl V, Teschemacher H, eds. Beta-Casomorphins and related peptides: recent developments. New York: VCH Weinheim; 155-60.
Kurek M, Przybilla B, Hermann K, Ring J, (1992). A naturally occurring opioid peptide from cow’s milk, beta-casomorphine-7, is a direct histamine releaser in man. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 97(2), 115-20.
Meisel H, FitzGerald R.J, (2000). Opioid peptides are encrypted in intact milk protein sequences. Br J Nutr. 84 (Suppl 1), S27-31.
Elitsur Y, Luk G.D, (1991). Beta-casomorphin (BCM) and human colonic lamina propria lymphocyte proliferation. Clin Exp Immunol. 85(3), 493-7.
Kayser H, Meisel H, (1996). Stimulation of human peripheral blood lymphocytes by bioactive peptides derived from bovine milk proteins. FEBS Lett. 383(1-2), 18-20.
2. Sun Z, Cade J.R, (1999). A Peptide Found in Schizophrenia and Autism Causes Behavioral Changes in Rats. Autism. 3(1), 85-95.
Reichelt KL, Knivsberg AM, Lind G, Nodland M: Probable etiology and possible treatment of childhood autism. Brain Dysfunction 1991; 4: 308-319.

Lisa Guy is a homeopath and naturopath who runs ‘Art of Healing’ (www.artofhealing.com.au) and The Happy Baby Clinic and is the author of “My Goodness: all you need to know about children’s health and nutrition.”

As published in nurtureparentingmagazine.com.au